Starting with Halloween candy and ending with over-indulging in champagne on New Year’s Eve, the holiday season is loaded with temptations and traditions that promise to wreck health goals. November and December are full of sugary hot cocoa, over-stuffed turkeys, unhealthy appetizers, Christmas cookies, and lots (and lots) of booze. Many women have food-related stress heading into the holidays while others give up on healthy eating entirely until Jan. 1. But reality check, ladies: You can still indulge in your favorite foods without giving up your health goals, and you should be able to enjoy the holidays (totally guilt-free). For some expert advice heading into the most decadent meals of the year, I polled eight nutritionists for the health tips they follow while still enjoying the season.
“Food provides our bodies with the physical nourishment it needs to feel and function its best. But it also is culture, tradition, a way to connect with others, enjoyment, and so much more. It’s so important to honor that, especially during the holidays when food is such a beautiful and important aspect of the celebration. But there needs to be a balance. Many people can fall into the pattern of eating mindlessly throughout the holiday season and not paying attention to their nutritional needs with the intention of ‘restarting’ or dieting in January.
The way I practice finding the right balance between food for nourishment and food for pleasure is pausing before eating and checking in with myself so I can make an intentional choice. I may say to myself, ‘I’m not hungry, but I would enjoy that dessert right now because it’s my favorite holiday dessert.’ On the other hand, I may say, ‘I’ve enjoyed a lot of my favorite holiday foods today, but I realize I haven’t eaten many vegetables and my digestion feels a little off. I’m gong to choose to fill my plate with more nourishing foods now.’ The purpose isn’t to eat perfect, but rather to slow down, bring awareness to what you want and need, and make an intentional choice.” –McKel Kooienga, MS, RD, LDN, author and founder of Nutrition Stripped
“I think it’s really important to try to keep your mental health in check and a priority as much as possible, especially with what’s going on in the world now. I personally like to go for walks and get as much fresh air as possible, not just for exercise, but also because moving my body particularly outside really helps destress my day and brings me clarity. I think that it’s so important to find some form of exercise that you enjoy. It’s a great mood booster and increases the serotonin and endorphins (feel good hormones). But this only works if it is exercise that you enjoy.” –Shana Minei Spence, MS, RDN, CDN, founder of The Nutrition Tea
“Fill up your plate with as much fiber as possible! Fiber helps with blood sugar control, appetite control, and stable energy levels. The more fiber you have with your meals (specifically carb-heavy meals), the less of a blood sugar spike you’ll have. The less of a blood sugar spike you have, the less insulin (your fat-storing hormone) you’ll release. When you experience these rapid spikes and falls, you become more hungry shortly after eating, so be sure to fill up on fiber during the holidays to say fuller, longer!” –Elizabeth Yontz Moye, RD, founder of Hello Spoonful
“As I fill my body with the right quantity and quality of food it needs, I also remember that food is for enjoyment and connection. The holidays are a time for me to connect with my family traditions, culture, and loved ones. My experience of taste, aroma, the love and intention put into the meal, surrounding myself with family, and the joy of eating all add to my experience of nourishment. It influences my mood, emotions, behavior, and food choices too. While it’s been a roller coaster kind of year, remember that food is a comfort. Food is a way to feel connected. It is to be enjoyed too. And that’s OK. That’s a good thing.” –Valerie Agyeman, RD, founder of Flourish Heights
“Between the holiday drinks, food, and even the change in air temperature during this time of the year (colder temperatures can contribute to more water loss in the body), hydration can take a hit. Grab an extra cup of water or two between meals to replenish those fluids. For optimal hydration, we need a balance of electrolytes, which are minerals that help regulate and control the balance of fluids in the body. The three big electrolytes are sodium, potassium, and magnesium, and they’re found in natural fruits and vegetables. Try adding a few slices of cucumbers or lemons/limes in a glass of water with a pinch of salt. Not only does this help provide those extra electrolytes for hydration, but it also makes it more interesting to drink throughout the day.
Also, make at least one meal a day as nutrient-dense as possible. The holidays can bring a lot of changes during mealtimes, like eating different foods or changing our eating routines. A nutrient-dense meal in between holiday meals (think: smoothie packed with leafy greens, a roasted vegetable salad, an omelette packed with spinach) can help you meet those vitamin and mineral goals throughout the week.” –May Zhu, RDN, LDN, founder of Nutrition Happens
“Instead of focusing on what not to eat, add more to the table. I volumize with veggies. I like to start with a seasonal salad, garlicky green beans, or roasted Brussels sprouts with pomegranates for a festive twist. Also, there are endless eating opportunities during the holidays, but staying active might help keep stress at bay. Consider connecting with friends over an active meetup like going on a (masked) walk. Lastly, I use what’s in season. From pears to apples to grapes to Brussels sprouts and other greens, there are lots of options.” –Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, Culinary and Integrative Dietitian
“Some things that I think are super important to prioritize all year—but especially around the holidays—are adequate sleep and hydration. I encourage everyone to start their day with a large glass of water before they reach for the coffee. This can help reach daily fluid needs and hopefully remind them to continue to drink water all day long! In addition, create a good routine around sleep. Go to bed and wake up around consistent times each day and create an environment that supports good, quality sleep.
Last but not least, plan ahead to reach your nutrition goals. Healthy eating requires a little more planning and intention, but when you think ahead, you are better able to incorporate nutrient-dense foods that support your health and immune system throughout the colder months. Remember that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing; you can truly enjoy all foods throughout the holiday season, without guilt or shame. It’s all about finding the balance that works for you and forming a healthy relationship with food.” –Shanna Hutcheson, RD, founder of Wellness for the Win
“Make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep. A lack of sleep amplifies emotions of tension, stress, and anxiety and weakens your immune system. Make a conscious effort to get at least five to seven hours of sleep each night. Great sleep hygiene (going to bed at the same time, turning off devices an hour before bedtime, etc.) will help you stay on track through the holidays. Also, find a grounding practice. Meditating, breathing, or repeating a mantra/affirmation can do wonders for your health and mindset.” –Serena Poon, CN, CHC, CHN, Leading Chef and Nutritionist